News & Analysis

‘We’ve never felt like refugees’

We hear from several people who have fled the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and all have one thing in common: they intend to return home as soon as the war is won.

The United Nations defines refugees as, “people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country.”

In that narrow interpretation, the now almost 4.5 million people who have left Ukraine since the country was invaded by Russia on February 24 are indeed refugees, the majority in Poland, Romania, Moldova, Hungary, and Slovakia.

And yet it is notable that very few of those displaced by the invasion have applied for asylum in the countries hosting them. This is in part due to the European Union’s generous temporary protection directive, which offers Ukrainians an EU residence permit, access to the labour market and housing, medical assistance, and access to education for children.

But it is also a reflection of the fact that few Ukrainians view their current status, or location – no matter how far away from home it is – as permanent. They want to return home as soon as possible, as soon as the war is won.

That was apparent as early as the first weekend of the invasion, when we visited a crossing point on the Romania-Ukraine border. Galyna Kitayeva, an accountant from Kolomyya in western Ukraine, told us: “I love Romania and have visited several times but I hope this visit, like all the others, is temporary, shortly after crossing the border with her elderly mother and two children.

“My husband is a reservist soldier and has joined the local defence brigade. He has promised that he will defend our home and protect it until it is safe for us to return. One of the children has a birthday in April: we hope to be home for that,” she told Emerging Europe.

‘I never imagined I would leave Kyiv’

It is unlikely that Kitayeva made it home for that birthday, but that same determination to return to Ukraine the moment it is safe to do so is indicative of all the displaced people we have spoken to.

Irina Shymko, director of emerging market development at Ukrainian IT firm Sigma Software says that she does not fell at all like a refugee.

“I’m a person temporarily in another location as it’s not safe at home. And I’ll get back there once I have that chance,” she tells Emerging Europe. “Ukraine is the country that I’m proud of. I want to be there when it raises from the ruins and I’m willing to help in that process. When we win there is a bright future for our country.”

Shymko, currently in Budapest, adds, “I do not need any help in the form of money, shelter, food and so on. I have work, I am used to working in airports, railway stations, hotels all over the world. The only difference today is that I can’t go back home.”

“The term refugee may be applied to someone who lost everything I guess, but not in my case. I’m OK as long as everyone who I love is safe and alive.”

Kateryna Kachan was in Namibia with her two children when Russia launched its invasion. After “three days of tears” she says that she decided to continue with her life.

“I am working remotely for MacPaw, an IT company located in Ukraine, my son is homeschooling with a Ukrainian online school, while my daughter decided to join a Namibian school. I’ve also joined a new project as a volunteer for the Ukrainian government.

“My family and I have never felt like refugees: we don’t request any social guarantees, we believe that everything depends on our own and we will work, study, do sport and so on in Namibia until we have the chance to get back to our hometown, Kyiv.”

Alexandra Borodina is head of PR at Roosh, a Kyiv-based tech firm. She tells Emerging Europe that she “never imagined” leaving Kyiv, which she calls “the most promising and inspiring city in Europe”.

“However, due to the war Russia started I am currently in Germany,” she adds. “I moved to Berlin for several reasons, including the vibe and architecture similar to my hometown. I am lucky – I have a job and I can financially support myself. Here I will grow my network, just with one mission – to return to Kyiv immediately after the victory and make our country stronger and more beautiful than ever before.”

‘The lucky ones’

“Lucky” is also a word used by Maria Dziubina, head of marketing at Room 8 Group, a Kyiv-based gaming studio. It initially seems a strange choice of word given the circumstances, but reflects the feeling amongst those who have fled Ukraine that it is the people who for one reason or another have had to stay behind that warrant the most sympathy.

“Yes, I am one of the lucky ones,” she tells Emerging Europe. “I was already working remotely long before the war started. So when I decided to escape from my home in Kyiv with my daughter, just seven months old, I had to bring her nanny with us too. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to work and to support my family, as I’m the only one who has a job now.”

Dziubina has been in Romania for a month and a half, and she describes the country as “one of the best places” for people fleeing Ukraine.

“Romanians are very caring, supportive and loving. We are very grateful they are having us. I could only dream of living among so kind people at such a tough time for me and my country. Romanians are love!”

As with so many other displaced Ukrainians, Dziubina tells us that she intends to go back home as soon as possible.

“Of course, it’s not easy to stay away from home. I’m crying every day, not only because of news, but also when I meet someone on the street who says they are standing with Ukraine. It is very important to have care and support during these days. I trust Ukraine will win and we will go back home.”

Citizens of the world

Iryna Volnytska is president of SET University, a Kyiv-based institution dedicated to science, entrepreneurship and technology.

“I have always considered myself to be a citizen of the world,” she says. “I have visited more than 60 countries, but now I want to live in Ukraine more than ever. When Russia started the war, I wasn’t in the country. I don’t know if I would have left Ukraine if I had to make this choice back then. The only thing that I know for sure is that I will return to my home as soon as possible and dedicate my professional life to rebuilding Ukraine.”

Anastasiya Savchenko meanwhile, product manager at Sticky Password, has found her way via Turkey to the United States.

“I want to go back [to Ukraine] one day, if I will see it is safe. But I don’t know when it will be safe for me and my children. Also, what to show the children now? Bucha, Irpen? Landmines?”

She adds that all of those who have fled Ukraine “have a lot to offer”, and that she doesn’t want to be seen as “disabled”.

“We want to be citizens of the world and bring value to society.”

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